Holling embodies something truly rare: the kind of wisdom that comes when an enormously creative, perceptive, and courageous mind spends a half-century studying a phenomenon and distilling its essential patterns. In a conversation with him not long ago, I encouraged him to expand on many aspects of panarchy theory, filling gaps in my understanding and giving me nuance and perspective that only he could provide. As we came to the end of our conversation, I asked him a question that had been on my mind since our first meeting a year before, when he’d been adamant that humanity is at grave risk.
“Why do you feel the world is verging on some kind of systemic crisis?”
“There are three reasons,” he answered. “First, over the years my understanding of the adaptive cycle has improved, and I’ve also come to better understand how multiple adaptive cycles can be nested together-from small to large-to create a panarchy. I now believe that this theory tells us something quite general about the way complex systems, not just ecological systems, change over time. And collapse is usually part of the story.
“Second, I think rapidly rising connectivity within global systems-both economic and technological-increases the risk of deep collapse. That’s a collapse that cascades across adaptive cycles-a kind of pancaking implosion of the entire system as higher-level adaptive cycles collapse, which causes progressive collapse at lower levels.”
“A bit like the implosion of the World Trade Center towers,” I offered, “where the weight of the upper floors smashed through the lower floors like a pile driver.”
“Yes, but in a highly connected panarchy, the collapse doesn’t have to start at the top. It can be triggered at the microlevel or the macrolevel or somewhere in between. It’s the tight interlinking of the adaptive cycles across the whole system-from the individual right up to the level of the global economy and even Earth’s biosphere-that’s particularly dangerous because it increases the likelihood that many of the cycles will become synchronized and peak together. And if this happens, they’ll reinforce each other’s collapse.”
“The third reason,” he continued, “is the rise of mega-terrorism-the increasing risk of attacks that will kill huge numbers of people and produce major disruptions in world systems. I’m not sure why megaterrorism has become more likely now. I suppose it’s partly a result of technological changes and the rise of particularly virulent kinds of fundamentalism. But I do know that in a tightly connected world where vulnerabilities are aligned, such attacks could trigger deep collapse-and that’s particularly worrisome.
“This is a moment of great volatility and instability in the world system. We need urgently to do what we can to avoid deep collapse. We also need to figure out how to exploit the opportunity provided by crisis and collapse when they occur, because some kind of systemic breakdown is now almost certain.”
We can see the danger of the tectonic stresses in a new light if we think of humankind-including all our interactions with each other and with nature and all the flows of materials, energy, and information through our societies and technologies-as one immense social-ecological system. As this grand system we’ve created and live within moves up the growth phase of its adaptive cycle, it’s accumulating potential in the form of people’s skills and economic wealth. It’s also becoming more connected, regulated, and efficient-and ultimately less resilient. And finally, it’s becoming steadily more complex, which means it’s moving further and further from thermodynamic equilibrium. We need ever-larger inputs of high-quality energy to maintain this complexity. In the meantime, internal tectonic stresses-including worsening scarcity of our best source of high-quality energy, conventional oil-are building slowly but steadily.
So we’re overextending the growth phase of our global adaptive cycle. We’ll reach the top of this cycle when we’re no longer able to regulate or control the stresses building deep inside the global system. Then we’ll get earthquakelike events that will cause the system’s breakdown and simplification as it moves closer to thermodynamic equilibrium.
Panarchy theory also helps us better understand another critically important phenomenon: the denial that prevents us from seeing the dangers we face. Our explanations of the world around us-whether of Earth’s place in the cosmos or of the workings of our economy-move through their own adaptive cycles. When a favorite explanation encounters contradictory evidence, we make an ad hoc adjustment to it to account for this evidence-just like Ptolemy added epicycles to his explanation of the planets’ movements. In the process, our explanation moves through something akin to a growth phase: it becomes progressively more complex, cumbersome, and rigid; it loses resilience; and it’s ripe for collapse should another, better, theory come along.
The growth phase we’re in may seem like a natural and permanent state of affairs-and our world’s rising complexity, connectedness, efficiency, and regulation may seem relentless and unstoppable-but ultimately it isn’t sustainable. Still, we find it impossible to get off this upward escalator because our chronic state of denial about the seriousness of our situation-aided and abetted by powerful special interests that benefit from the status quo-keeps us from really seeing what’s happening or really considering other paths our world might follow. Radically different futures are beyond imagining. So we stay trapped on a path that takes us toward major breakdown.
The longer a system is “locked in” to its growth phase, says Buzz Holling, “the greater its vulnerability and the bigger and more dramatic its collapse will be.” If the growth phase goes on for too long, “deep collapse”-something like synchronous failure-eventually occurs. Collapse in this case is so catastrophic and cascades across so many physical and social boundaries that the system’s ability to regenerate itself is lost. [A] forest-fire shows how this happens: if too much tinder-dry debris has accumulated, the fire becomes too hot, which destroys the seeds that could be the source of the forest’s rebirth.
Holling thinks the world is reaching “a stage of vulnerability that could trigger a rare and major ‘pulse’ of social transformation.” Humankind has experienced only three or four such pulses during its entire evolution, including the transition from hunter-gatherer communities to agricultural settlement, the industrial revolution, and the recent global communications revolution. Today another pulse is about to begin. “The immense destruction that a new pulse signals is both frightening and creative,” he writes. “The only way to approach such a period, in which uncertainty is very large and one cannot predict what the future holds, is not to predict, but to experiment and act inventively and exuberantly via diverse adventures in living.”
Via Oonsie Biggs